Last week we started a conversation around music and sleep by reviewing some of the research around this topic, and this week we’ll continue the discussion by looking at how music therapists at a local hospital, the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC (CHP), use music to help kids relax and sleep.
Watch the video below to meet Debbie Benkovitz, one of CHP’s music therapists, and hear an example of a song that she might use to relax babies and toddlers at the hospital. (Click Transcript of First Excerpt from Sleep Interview with Debbie Benkovitz to read Debbie’s remarks.)
In the video Debbie played Brahms’ “Lullaby,” a great example of a song that you can use to help children go to sleep. When I spoke with Debbie last week, she told me about several guidelines to keep in mind while choosing pieces, like “Lullaby,” that are ideally suited for this purpose.
Most importantly, when playing or singing a lullaby, think about its rhythm. Lullabies are universally in a triple meter, such as 3/4 time, because this fits the rocking rhythm developed by all cultures. This doesn’t mean that you can only use songs written in triple meter as a lullaby, though. Debbie has often converted songs in duple meter, like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” or “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep,” into lullabies by singing them in 3/4 if she feels that a child is especially comfortable with these songs and might respond well to them.
Secondly, a lullaby should have a tempo analogous to a person’s resting heart rate, which decreases with age. Healthy children generally have a resting heart rate around 70-80 BPM, while babies have higher heart rates and healthy adults have lower heart rates. In the hospital setting, patients are usually anxious and therefore experience higher heart rates than others their age. Because of this, Debbie often starts her music with a faster tempo to reflect a patient’s heightened level of anxiety and heart rate, and then she gradually slows down to transport the patient to a more relaxed state. Luckily, every room at CHP has a clock with a second hand, so Debbie can easily see if a child’s heart rate comes down and the music effectively relaxes him/her.
In addition, the tone quality, or timbre, of the music matters when using lullabies to help kids sleep. Debbie often sings and plays guitar softly for her patients, or occasionally, if she sees babies without their parents present, she gently rocks them as she sings to them. When she sings, she uses a motherly tone, rather than an operatic voice with lots of power and vibrato, to make children feel comfortable.
With older children at CHP, Debbie typically uses a slightly different approach because they like to be more involved in the relaxation process. Our second video clip shows Debbie demonstrating how she might relax older children at the hospital. (Click Transcript of Second Excerpt from Sleep Interview with Debbie Benkovitz to read Debbie’s comments.)
As you can see, while Debbie may engage older and younger children differently, in both cases she follows the guidelines about rhythm, tempo, and timbre mentioned earlier. Regardless of a child’s age, she can also monitor changes in certain physiological measures, like heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure to see if the music successfully promotes relaxation (and it often does).
Others at CHP recognize the power of music by asking the music therapists and interns to relax patients undergoing procedures in different areas of the hospital, like the cardiac ICU. As Debbie says, “We make their [doctors’ and nurses’] lives easier because the patients are calmer and more compliant.” But most importantly, they make children feel more comfortable while they are undergoing difficult procedures in an unfamiliar environment. Everyone at CHP is very lucky to have them.